Please enjoy this blog post authored by Rabiya Hirji, Solution Advisory Director, Risk Products, Intapp.
When I started my career in law firm risk management over 25 years ago, the conflicts assistant/analyst/administrator was expected to fulfill a wide range of responsibilities including all aspects of matter opening, procuring details to respond to audit letters, preparing matter lists for lawyer departures, and maintaining client/matter data in financial systems. This wide range of duties and expectations not only put a lot of strain on these professionals; it also kept them from focusing on and specializing in specific areas and skillsets.
A recent ILTA podcast, “New and Evolving Roles in Law Firm Risk Functions,” highlighted how new technology, changing client expectations, and regulatory changes are transforming law firm functions by creating opportunities for individuals to develop new skillsets — allowing firms and legal departments to rethink how they deliver their legal services.
At some firms, risk teams are creating dedicated roles for specialized functions, such as conflicts clearance lawyers, risk systems administrators, client commitments analysts, and audit letter specialists. These niche roles let risk professionals develop new skill sets and specialize in specific areas of their choosing. At a time when “quiet quitting” and “the great resignation” have become common parlance, law firms should view this trend toward more specialized roles as an opportunity to retain talent.
Here are some steps to guide law firm risk leaders who are considering developing specialized risk functions:
- Clarify the responsibilities of the risk team and identify current gaps. For now, avoid assessing individual team members and their respective skillsets (or lack thereof).
- Create job descriptions for the roles that will fill the gaps on your team. Each job description should reflect the skillsets that the department needs, not the particular skillsets that any existing team member possesses.
- Using the newly created job descriptions, assess whether any individuals on your existing team could potentially fill the roles, either immediately or with coaching. As part of this process, have candid one-on-one conversations with your current team members: Do they get overwhelmed or excited by certain tasks? Are they interested in growing their skills, or are they content being generalists? This will help you determine if they’re a potential candidate for the role.
- Give interested team members an opportunity to “skill up” for the role. Be transparent about the role’s requirements and expectations so your team members can successfully map out a path to attaining that role. Law firm mentoring programs tend to be well-structured for lawyers, but often less so for administrative professionals. Make the time and effort to pair the individual with someone they can shadow or learn from to be successful in the role.
- Determine a timeframe for evaluating your professionals’ performance in their new roles, then re-assess if they’re the right fit. Just as you would with any new team members, give them grace time to learn their new roles — but if any are uncomfortable in or unsuited to their positions, give them the option to resume their prior roles. You don’t lose much by taking this approach. If nothing else, the individual will be well-equipped to back up the next right candidate.
- Cast a wider net. If an existing team member or another applicant doesn’t have the qualifications needed, ask yourself: Does the role really require multiple years of law firm experience or a J.D.? Many law firms are finding great candidates for risk roles who have consulting, accounting, or software backgrounds. A law firm background or a law degree aren’t always predictive of success in a law firm risk role.
Risk professionals are re-assessing their positions and their career options more than ever, so firms that want to improve retention should give their professionals meaningful opportunities for professional growth and support their curiosity. By providing talented employees with interesting career opportunities and specialized roles, your firm can gain a competitive advantage in acquiring and retaining talent, and enhance your risk team’s overall success at the same time.